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County asks renewal of ambulance levy

The quality of rural ambulance service in Island County, including response times and innovations in medical technology, will be an issue in the fall election.

Voters will be asked Sept. 17 if they support continuation of the four-year levy to fund Emergency Medical Service in Island County at the same rate, 37 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value.

EMS Manager Roger Meyers was careful this week to say this is not a new levy, and to separate it from a failed proposal this spring to increase county sales taxes to benefit the county's 911 system.

"This is just a continuation of the standard levy we've had in the past," Meyers said Thursday. "It's the same one voters approved four years ago. We're all extremely proud of this system, and it's largely because of the support of that levy."

When they went to the polls in 1998, residents gave the nod to a 12-cent bump in the EMS levy amount, the first increase in 20 years. This funds approximately 46 percent of the total EMS budget at Whidbey General Hospital, which Meyers said is about $4.2 million annually. This time around, 37 cents will be sufficient.

"We did not feel that an increase would be appropriate at this time," Meyers said. "We felt that the 37 cents would be enough."

Whidbey General is the only licensed transport paramedic agency on the island, so the levy is an either-or proposition regarding funding for all emergency medical services. Meyers said because the levy provides nearly half the overall EMS budget, it's disappearance would impact to the level of service on the island.

"That would be very devastating to the service," he said. "It would not look like it does today. It may lead to longer response times and impact availability of our ambulances."

There are currently 12 ambulances in the EMS fleet, and a new ambulance has just been ordered. There are nine ambulances strategically placed around the island, ready to respond to emergencies.

Meyers said the stationing of some ambulances at fire stations has led to some confusion about the EMS system, causing some to believe that there are two or more agencies that can respond to emergencies. This is not so.

All emergency services, including vehicles, are owned and operated by the hospital. Fire districts, Meyers said, along with police and the county's 911 system, cooperate with EMS in responding to calls.

Meyers said the unique geography of the island presents difficulties for EMS personnel. But because of the cooperation of multiple agencies, Meyers said his department has been successful in meeting their goal of arriving at the scene of emergencies within moments of a call.

"We kind of pride ourselves on trying to get to most areas within six minutes of call," he said, adding that it does that about 90 percent of the time.

This levy would pay for a new ambulance and the construction of an administrative office within the hospital, which Meyers said is important to the organization. Right now, the EMS offices are in a trailer Meyers called "pretty cramped."

The administration building would allow all EMS personnel to be housed in the same location, which would improve both the efficiency and productivity of the entire system, Meyers said.

The levy would also support some systemwide improvements, including the addition of newer, more efficient EKG monitors, replacing aging ambulances when necessary and the implementing of a community defibrillator training program. The Automated External Defibrillator is a nine-pound device that can be operated with minimal training. The machine can evaluate heart rhythm and administer electrical shocks to reset an erratic heartbeat. Defibrilators would be placed on transit buses and in public gathering places.

"Obviously, we keep current with all the technological advances, and will continue to do so," Meyers said.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, EMS systems also have had to keep current on strategies for responding to mass threats of bioterrorism.

"We've allocated already a lot of time and expense to that," Meyers said.

He said EMS officials are committed to keeping costs at a minimum while also providing a high level of service.

"It is an expensive system because we've tried to meet everybody's needs," he said. ""But we've been able to do things cost effectively."

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